BARTOW, Fla. (CBS Tampa) – Juveniles and convicted felons are now under the same roof in Florida.
As of Oct. 1, juveniles and adult criminals are now being housed together at the Polk County Jail, a legislative move that has caused a stir among local ACLU and NAACP leaders.
A state bill passed in April was put into motion July 1, moving 41 Polk County juveniles from the juvenile detention center into the county jail, creating an environment where juveniles and adults charged with felonies are housed in the same facility.
The Florida State Senate bill, which was passed by Sen. J.D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales), allows for a joint facility granted that counties such as Polk County “cover the financial cost of detention care for pre-adjudicated juveniles and providing that a county is exempt from the provisions of these sections of Florida Statutes if they are in compliance with specific provisions,” according to the bill’s fiscal impact statement. The bill states that it will authorize a county or county sheriff to form regional detention centers for juveniles through interlocal agreements and also requires that county jail facilities comply with a federal ruling to separate the juvenile inmates from the adult inmates.
ACLU attorney Julie Ebenstein remains a vocal critic of the program. She told CBS Tampa that the ACLU will ask Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to stop detaining young juveniles in the adult jail.
“We think it’s a destructive, dangerous policy,” Ebenstein said. “This law was passed a bit under the radar as part of the budget committee. We’re not sure folks are as aware of what’s happening. We want communities to know what’s happening.”
She later added: “Hopefully, this is just a short-term turn in the wrong direction that can be brought back on track.”
The economic savings of the program, the ultimate catalyst for it, could prove to be substantial. Earlier this year, Judd estimated that housing a juvenile at the county jail would cost somewhere between $70 to $90 a day, a substantial drop in taxpayer money from the estimated $237-a-day rate for pretrial detention of a juvenile at a juvenile detention center. Judd told WTSP-TV that moving juveniles to the Polk County Jail could represent an annual savings of about $1.4 million.
The Department of Juvenile Justice estimated that the cost of pretrial detention of juveniles at juvenile detention centers among all Florida counties is around $72 million.
But Ebenstein is skeptical as to whether the program will save money, saying that the idea of saving funding in the short term could significantly affect the program’s long-term financial trajectory, specifically if recidivism rates spike. Donnie Brown, president of the NAACP branch in Bartow, Fla., echoes those sentiments, saying that young offenders should be afforded a real opportunity to rehab instead of being housed in the county jail.
“The unfortunate ones are the ones taking the brunt of it,” Brown told CBS Tampa. “It’s another example of poor people being dumped on because of the system.”
He added: “I certainly hope [Polk County] can find some funds to have the juvenile facility until this budget crunch is over.”
Responding to the verbal back-and-forth with local groups, Judd told WTSP-TV that neither group has asked to come by the facility to see how it is operating, saying neither the ACLU nor the NAACP has engaged in discussions about the facility with him or anyone at the sheriff’s office.
Judd is expected to address the media today at 2 p.m. He was unavailable for comment as he was attending to speaking engagements and meetings Thursday morning. The sheriff’s office indicated to CBS Tampa that it is eager to hear what the ACLU and other groups have to say today.
Still, the decision has left local leaders befuddled, adding to the dialogue of what is the appropriate way to handle juveniles during pretrial detention. For now, this is the system in place, which could serve as a real detriment to the community, Brown said.
“I think juveniles have a difficult enough time as it is in the juvenile facility without being thrown in with these adults,” he said. “We need to work to try to help these young people get back on their feet in life. Instead, we’re incarcerating them with these adult criminals who have committed major crimes. What they’re being exposed to will worsen that condition, not help them.”